Originally published by The Poetry Foundation on August 13, 2018.
The first time I read a poem by Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan ibn Hani’ al-Hakami, otherwise known as Abū Nuwās, I thought it was fake. Titled “In the Bath-house,” the poem celebrates that sensual “palace of pleasure” where “the mysteries hidden by trousers / Are revealed to you,” and you can “feast your eyes without restraint”:
You see handsome buttocks, shapely trim torsos,
You hear the guys whispering pious formulas
to one another
('God is Great! ' 'Praise be to God! ')
It’s not exactly what most readers expect from an eighth-century Islamic Arab poet. But then, what do most of us know about eighth-century Islam? Not much, I’d guess.
* * *
On June 12, 2016, the night Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a Latinx queer bar in Orlando, I was asleep on my older brother John’s couch in Washington, DC. John is the straight sheep of the family, but my younger gay brother and I accept him all the same. We were there to play with our wiggly-wonderful new nephew, who had us up at 6 a.m. when the first reports of the massacre trickled in. By the time we lined up for the BoltBus back to New York, it was all over the news—although what it was seemed to be an open question: terrorist attack? homophobic rampage? both/and, a tragic double?
Soon after we boarded the bus, the moment I’d been silently dreading arrived. My cousin Ronnie (not his real name) reached out over Facebook. I’ve lost his original message, but he wrote something along the lines of “We got your back.” In the supposed war between gays and Muslims, he wanted me to know which side he was on.
Ronnie and I are like binary stars in parallel orbit: born just a few years apart, raised within miles of each other, our lives intimately connected by the vagaries of a large and complicated Catholic family. But somewhere along the line, where I turned left, he turned alt-right. When I applied for a job at Buzzfeed, he applied for one at Breitbart. Our social media posts are like funhouse mirrors, with the same events distorted almost out of recognition by our respective politics.
Me, Facebook, June 2016: Queer communities will be pitted against Muslim ones, and queer Muslims will be the ones who lose the most.
Ronnie, Facebook, June 2016: The guy chose a soft target and did some jihad. Notice he didn’t choose a biker bar right? These animals are gonna find a way to bring their stone age philosophy here and we must be prepared to defend ourselves, our nation and our loved ones.
As a faggot, I know that I carry moral (and immoral) weight at all times, simply by existing in America. My life is always symbolic. If my body ends up hanging on a fence somewhere, I’ll never just be dead: I either brought it on myself or was the victim of a hatred that goes beyond me but flowed through me in one violent moment. Ever since 9/11, though, I’ve been aware of my place on a swiftly tilting scale. Gays are in ascendancy (despite the fact that no federal nondiscrimination act protects us, that trans women are still murdered at a horrifying clip, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Black men who sleep with men have a one-in-two chance of contracting HIV in their lifetimes, et-fucking-cetera). Still, the current moment is probably the best it’s ever been for queers in this country. But when we rise, others fall, and in America today, gays and Muslims are at apogee and perigee—and God help those with a foot on each planet. We are the future, and they are seen as the dark and terrifying past.
Ronnie and I don’t talk much anymore. The gap between us is too wide, and we can only scream across it. But I think a lot about what could disturb this idea that Islam is stuck in the past, irreparably incompatible with being gay. I see variations on this theme all the time now, usually accompanied by videos of scared, Semitic-looking men being shoved off rooftops or paeans to the state of Israel. Certainly, homophobia exists in majority-Muslim countries, much of it religiously inflected, some of it state sponsored. But then, swap out Muslim for Christian and that sentence would remain true, both today and historically, and I rarely see Christians being blamed for every sociopath who wears a cross. How do we accord the same nuance and complexity to cultures we know little about, whatever our faith is?
The answer I keep returning to: Abū Nuwās.
* * *
Like many of history’s greats, Nuwās is encrusted with centuries of apocrypha. Even some of the 1,500 poems in his Diwan (collected works) may have been written by imitators and admirers. What is known: he was born around 760 CE in southwest Persia, in an area that today straddles the border between Iraq and Iran. When he was young, his mother, a seamstress named Jullaban, took him to the bustling port city of Basra, where he was educated and fell in love with an enslaved woman named Janan. Depending on which story you believe, he either left Basra, thus ending their relationship, or their relationship ended, causing him to leave Basra. Either way, he moved to Baghdad, where he achieved fame and even short periods of fortune, though money seemed to slip through his fingers. This was the dawn of the Islamic golden age, and Baghdad was the center of the civilized world; it was Oz, and Nuwās was a libidinous Dorothy Gale.
By all accounts, Nuwās was a beautiful, brilliant, fey boy with a husky voice and a lisp. In Basra, he quickly attracted the attention of scholars, both for his ability to recite the Koran from memory and for his own short, witty verses. He was mentored by the blond, blue-eyed Persian poet Abu Usama Waliba ibn al-Hubab al-Asad. A libertine of the first water, Waliba taught Nuwās not only the important pre-Islamic poets but also how to drink until dawn and still compose in the morning. According to some stories, after dinner on the night they met, the young Nuwās stripped naked and prepared for bed. Waliba, overcome by his beauty, attempted to kiss his butt, at which point Nuwās farted in his face. When Waliba called him a son of a bitch (or, you know, the eighth-century Basran equivalent), Nuwās retorted, “What reward can there be for the one who kisses ass except a fart!”
That quick acid tongue helped Nuwās attract powerful patrons, particularly the caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son, Muhammad al-Amin. That same quick acid tongue helped Nuwās alienate powerful patrons, particularly the caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son. Nuwās was jailed at least once by each of them, for heresy and other crimes, which didn’t stop him from composing poetry, however. Consider this crush note to a guard named Sa‘id:
May I be your protection from death! — add more chains to me!
Double my dose of the lash and the club!
Appoint as sentry over me and the doors
Of my cell every rebellious devil
And give my ears reprieve from the filthy,
Harsh voice of a man called Sa‘id:
He has left my chains feeling light
But his hatred [of me] has placed irons on my heart!
Nuwās didn’t write poems just about sexy men; he also praised beautiful women, wine (the subject of a collection published this May), hunting, his patrons, himself, ghulamiyya (young female entertainers who dressed as men), and even, occasionally, God. During his life, his most scandalous poems were those that crept right to the edge of blasphemy. His antinomian humor led to his delight in suggesting sin—such as eating during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting—while simultaneously invoking God’s grace as a kind of preemptive forgiveness, a get-out-of-Hell-free card. Walking this line secured his reputation as a great poet and a great wit, and that reputation, in turn, kept his poetry safe in future centuries, when small-minded censures attacked everything from his drinking to his womanizing to his man-izing.
Although Arabic poetry had a vibrant homoerotic tradition until the mid-19th century, Nuwās’s poems to men were occasionally greeted with heavy side-eye. A little more than a century after Nuwās’s death, for instance, the historian Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani published a redacted version of the poet’s collected works with a curious preamble explaining that sex between men was an imported vice of Nuwās’s era, picked up by soldiers in foreign lands. Despite this obvious discomfort, however, al-Isfahani still published Nuwās’s homoerotic works.
Thus, Nuwās’s poems have survived for 1,300 years, or roughly as long as Beowulf. And not only his writing lives on. He was so venerated for his wily ways that he appears as a character in One Thousand and One Nights, joyfully seducing young men and always landing just barely on his feet. (Sir Richard Burton wrote in the footnotes of his famous 1885 translation that “Abu Nowás is a person carefully to be avoided; and all but anthropological students are advised to ‘skip’ over anecdotes in which his name and abominations occur.”) The stories of the One Thousand and One Nights, in turn, became part of the folklore of Swahili-speaking East Africa, particularly Zimbabwe, where Nuwās survives as a trickster figure who bedevils the rich and the powerful—Robin Hood with a quill instead of a quiver.
In Abu Nuwas: A Genius of Poetry (2005), Philip Kennedy recounts four different versions of Nuwās’s death. Two involve the poet being framed and murdered for writing a satirical poem, one says he drank himself to death, and one says he died in prison, probably after being jailed for a poem he actually did write. The historian al-Isfahani suggested that Nuwās’s religious poems chart an arc from sinner to penitent before his death, with the implication being that this arc explains how Nuwās’s raunchiest works survived: they are the sordid “before” to his sanctified “after.” Because the poems are undated, this sounds like moralizing horse puckey to me, but who can know for sure?
Nuwās’s writing is so clever that it’s sometimes hard to separate his pieties from his blasphemies. In this excerpt, he threatens the devil Iblis with virtue:
When my sweetheart began to spurn me
And his letters and news stopped coming,
I called upon Iblis and said to him
Privately, shedding tears by the bucket:
“Do you not see I am ruined?
– How weeping and sleeplessness have emaciated my frame?
And how my ardor has intensified? Acute worry,
Anxiety and passion have almost killed me ...
All for obeisance to you: I have fulfilled your wishes without compromise
And scorned those things you despise;
But if you do not now graft love upon
My darling’s heart – as you are so capable –
I will never more recite poetry or hearken to song,
Nor will inebriation be the sap of my limbs;
Rather, I will recite the Qur’an incessantly,
Rising early to study it well into the night;
I will account for myself each year [before God], striving
toward [His Meccan]
And set aside savings of virtuous deeds!”
In the end, Nuwās got the boy, and I suspect he kept his side of the bargain, enjoying a long and libertine life.
* * *
What matters, of course, isn’t Nuwās himself. Look hard enough, and you can find a lone voice saying pretty much anything at any time in history. But I think of Nuwās as the incomparable soloist, the high, clear, castrati soprano rising above an innumerous chorus of Arab poets whose work touches on love or sex between men, dating from the dawn of Islam to the present.
Did you know, for instance, that the best-selling poet in America (as of 2014) is Rumi, the Persian Sufi mystic from the 13th century, who wrote many poems to and for his male lover, Shams Tabrizi? The love between Rumi and Shams inspired the 14th-century poet Hafez, whom many consider the apex of classical Persian poetry. In one of his most famous works, Hafez writes
It happens all the time in heaven,
And some day
It will begin to happen
Again on earth —
That men and women who are married,
And men and men who are
And women and women
Who give each other
Often will get down on their knees
And while so tenderly
Holding their lover's hand,
With tears in their eyes,
Will sincerely speak, saying,
How can I be more loving to you;
How can I be more
When this was written, Islamic poets had been singing songs of love between men for some 600 years, and over in darkest Europe, the Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini had recently written the first sonnet.
Don’t mistake me, however; Hafez is a midpoint, not an end. Five hundred years after Rumi, Shams, and Hafez died, the 18th-century Damascene poet ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Khāl composed perhaps the best burn poem ever written:
You of the wide and generous posterior – and how many marks have we
left on it!
You who, if a penis appears in the Hijaz and the land of Rāmah,
Cries and wails, saying, “I am tired of my residence [in Damascus].”
Or if he smells a penis in al-Yamāmah says: “By God, to al-Yamāmah!”
He prefers to everlasting bliss with wine [in paradise],
A penis as the neck of a camel and as long as the legs of an ostrich.
If the pricks that he has used to quench his cravings were put end to end,
And he mounted them, he would reach the sky, and truly exceed the stars
It may not evoke the glorious spiritual love that Hafez celebrates, but the poem at least recognizes that men fuck each other. In fact, Arabic travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries found Europeans’ silence in regard to same-sex activities quite curious. As the Moroccan author Muhammad al-Saffār noted during his visit to Paris in 1845, “Flirtation, romance, and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful to them.”
I hesitate to call any of these writers gay or even homosexual or bisexual. The longer I work as a historian, the more culturally bound I find all ideas of sexuality and gender. There seems to be no exact correlative to the Western idea of homosexuality in the periods when these poems were written, as Khaled El-Rouayheb persuasively argues in Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World (2005), from which I’ve taken the aforementioned quote and poem. All the constituent elements of what we today call male homosexuality (love between men, sex between men, gender deviance, etc.) can be found in classical Arabic poetry, but they aren’t necessarily connected to one another nor to a broader idea of homosexuality as an attraction to members of the same sex, which has physical and emotional dimensions and doesn’t distinguish between sexual roles (i.e., whether you want to penetrate or be penetrated).
Like ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, classical Islamic Arabic culture seemed most comfortable with same-sex attraction between older men and teen boys. However, the line between attraction and sexual contact could be complicated. El-Rouayheb documents periods when writing love poetry to other men was celebrated, while implying sexual intercourse with them was slanderous. And what are we to make of a poem by the 17th-century Damascene writer Ibrahim al-Ghazali, an ostensibly straight man urging his penis to get hard—despite his lack of attraction—so that he can penetrate a rival? El-Rouayheb documents all this and more, painting a picture not of clandestine homosexuals and kinky heterosexuals but of men who lived outside such categories.
For me, Nuwās isn’t the great gay poet of Islamic antiquity; he’s a reminder that for hundreds of years, sexuality was oriented around a different axis. Rather than a mirror reflecting myself back at me, Nuwās is a window onto a strange horizon. When it comes to sex, all cultures start with the same “ingredients”—our bodies and what it is possible to do and desire with them. The recipes we create, the combinations we eschew or embrace, are unique. Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, we think our ideas about sexuality are natural and ahistoric, applicable across all time and cultures.
The tragic correlative here is that we are willfully blind to the actual connections that do exist between modern ideas about sexuality, whether those ideas are mine or Ronnie’s or Omar Mateen’s. That “stone age” Islamic philosophy Ronnie worries about bears very little resemblance to classical Arabic thinking, but it sure is similar to the homophobia I grew up with in the American suburbs of the 1980s. This should come as no surprise because both grew from the same root: the kudzu of British colonialism.
The thousand-year tradition of Islamic-Arabic songs of love and sex between men came to an abrupt end in the middle of the 19th century, when resource-ravenous Europeans descended upon the Middle East. They brought with them the idea of homosexuality, already indelibly inscribed with homophobia. The two are almost inseparable. In fact, nearly 70 percent of modern countries with British colonial roots criminalize homosexual sex, their laws written to mimic Victorian England’s anti-sodomy laws. In the 1920s, the English imposed those laws on the British Protectorate of Mesopotamia, today known as Iraq. In the name of Christian civilization and oil (mostly oil), they planted a seed, and today we wring our hands and exclaim, “How awful is that flower.”
* * *
Of all of Nuwās’s religious poems, my favorite is the one popularly referred to as “The Last Poem of Abū Nuwās.” If it’s true that Nuwās died in prison, then this poem was found tucked under the mattress upon which he died. It’s earnest without being sanctimonious and conveys an idea of God’s love that touches even my atheistic heart. If I could give one Nuwās poem to Ronnie, or to all of us, it would be this one:
Lord, though my sins are great and many
I know your forgiveness is greater still.
If only the virtuous can hope in you
from whom can the sinner seek refuge and help?
I call on you, Lord, humbly as you have commanded.
If you reject my hand, who will have pity?
I have no way to you but the hope
that you are forgiving, that I am a Muslim.
There is one constant I find to be true across time and across all religions: we humans are the mistake makers, the fallible, the failed. We get it wrong, and then we get it wrong again, and we hope that in the end, God, or at least history, cuts us some slack. If we were to hold deities accountable for all the awful things done in their name, Satan would be out of a job. I think that’s something Nuwās understood; I wish I could make Ronnie understand it too. The only ones truly stuck in the past are the dead, and even they return to offer us lessons, if only we’ll listen.